Thomas Berry: The Great Work

Upon Ed Levin’s earlier prompting, I dug out Thomas Berry’s books that had been idling unread in my bookshelf — The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work. I have begun with The Great Work, and I’m very pleased to have discovered this book. Not only is it a fine illustration of what Nietzsche means by “Be true to the Earth!”, Berry also is, in my estimation, a very good approximation — an evident precusor, an incipient manifestation — to what Jean Gebser anticipated as “the integral consciousness”. These two themes of fidelity to the Earth and self-transcendence (and also what I’ve called “the return of the native”) come together in Berry in a remarkable way, even though neither Nietzsche nor Gebser are referenced in the text of The Great Work at all.

After having read Iain McGilchrist’s equally remarkable book on neurodynamics, The Master and his Emissary on the divided brain (a “game-changer” in my opinion), and the substantive corroboration of McGilchrist’s thesis about brain asymmetry in the personal experience of neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor (also in My Stroke of Insight), I have, subsequently, felt the need to re-interpret much of my own experience and intuitions within this framework model of neurodynamics. I have approached reading Berry’s The Great Work in a similar spirit, testing this model of neurodynamics for what it can reveal about ourselves and of contemporary history. There is also something of Sri Aurobindo’s “supramental consciousness” in Berry’s book, although Aurobindo doesn’t come in for a mention here either.

As I noted in the last post (and before I took up Berry’s book) there is no self-overcoming, no spiritual realisation possible, without this fidelity to the Earth. Berry’s “Great Work” is a notable and articulate affirmation of that. He even addresses specifically this “return of the native”. But it must be emphasised, too, that the return of the native (or what is called “the pagan”) is not a return to nativism, which is called “neo-paganism” and would be a disaster. It is a true integration. And this was even the musings of Canadian theologian Tom Harpur in his book The Pagan Christ which is also, in some sense, a landmark book. For, indeed, it makes no sense to speak of Jesus as the avatar and ideal of “the perfect man” — whole, complete, entire — unless we mean thereby “integral”, the express unity of all the comes before and all that comes after as “the alpha and the omega”.

This implicit unity of the before and after is the paradoxical meaning of “ever-present origin”. And I think, too, that Nietzsche was quite right in charging that Christianity ran off the rails when it started to think of “perfection” as a moralistic ideal and metaphysical abstraction, rather than as an embodied integrality — the embodiment of all possible modes of being that are accessible to human beings. Jesus was more than a prophet. He was the prophesised as the pivot of time, as the new integration. That’s a pretty significant accomplishment.

The subtitle of Berry’s book is “A Way Into the Future,” and this “way” is, evidently, not just a “paradigm shift” in the usual sense but, in terms of McGilchrist’s neurodynamic metaphor, the shift of the awareness from the ego-centric left-hemisphere of the brain to the right-hemisphere’s holistic “mode of attention”, and that raises the obvious question. How to effect such a shift more broadly? Oddly enough, in McGilchrist’s book the term “neuroplasticity” doesn’t occur even once. And Gebser’s “Ever-Present Origin” doesn’t really directly address the issue of neurodynamics at all. Gebser’s own approach to this question is sometimes strangely contradictory, insisting on the one hand that every individual must choose to walk this path but, at the same time, insisting it cannot be “willed” into effectuality because it is emergent, and all the individual can do is to affirm it or acknowledge it and not interfere with it — not say “no”. No techniques, no manifestoes, no new ideologies, just vigilance and mindfulness. McGilchrist follows much the same path: our choice being to say “no” or “not say no” to the manifestations of the integral.  This also is, somewhat, the reasoning of “Seth” that the irruption of unconscious knowledge (presumably, largely the assertion of the suppressed right-hemisphere of its “rights”, as it were) is also emergent and unwilled, and requires only an “enlightened ego consciousness” as guidance, which knows how to represent the irruption of this wild and spontaneous unconscious knowledge in new cultural patterns or Gestalts. This is pretty much the substance of Berry’s “Great Work”.

The apparent contradiction in Gebser’s work here is, I think, due to the lack of attention to neurodynamics as described by McGilchrist. Evidently, what is needed is a temporary inhibition of the “doings” of the left-hemisphere, and that this is not only the aim of meditation, yoga, and various practices called “spiritual” but has also been attempted with drugs and other devices, which is probably not the optimum procedure as they can be damaging (as Castaneda concluded from his own experience with the power plants). But besides power plants (which were not “normal” or necessary, but were a last resort method taken by his teacher don Juan), Castaneda was instructed in certain procedures or practices that, in retrospect, look clearly designed to temporarily inhibit the cognitive processes of the left-hemisphere of the brain: “gazing”, or crossing the eyes in a certain way, or lucid dreaming, and so on all of which don Juan referred to as the practice of “Not-Doing” in order to bring about “Stopping the World”. This corresponds to the Zen practice of “No-Mind” which is also antecedent to “stopping the wheel of space and time”. Evidently, Jill Bolte-Taylor’s stroke pushed her into this state of “Not-Doing” and “No-Mind”. And clearly, the intent is to suspend the hegemony over consciousness of the mode of cognition of the left-hemisphere of the brain. So, Berry’s “way into the future” also implies this as something necessary in order to allow the mode of attention of the brain’s right-hemisphere to shine through the inhibitions and blockages and repression of the left-hemisphere’s inner chatter. The “way into the future” is the cognitive shift, which Gebser calls “the mutation”.

“Not-Doing” (which I realise now is what I previsouly intended by suggesting “do nothing”) is not exactly passive. It’s quite arduous. You have to stop the Monkey Mind — the cognitive processes of the left-hemisphere of the brain. How do you do that? How do you temporarily suspend the activities of the left-hemisphere so that the suppressed greater awareness of the right-hemisphere can be expressed and realised? For Gebser, it is simply a matter of acknowledging and affirming the spontaneous expressions of this emergent right-hemisphere’s mode of attention which he sees as the key feature of our times, and this is also implied in Rosenstock-Huessy’s formula for a real science of society intended to replace the centrality of the Cartesian “cogito” — respondeo, etsi mutabor: “I respond, although I will be changed”. This formula actually conforms, in some ways, to don Juan’s practice of “Not-Doing”. Human beings don’t need to think all the time, but vigilance and openness are emphasised — an openness of the ego-consciousness to being transformed which, in practical terms, means an opening of the left-hemisphere’s mode of cognition to the spontaneous, holistic perceptions of the right-hemisphere or what I’ve called “the first attention”. In McGilchrist’s terms, respondeo, etsi mutabor means that the ego-consciousness (or this “I am”) returns to its rightful role as the “emissary” and not as “master” in the house. And significantly, Rosenstock-Huessy also insisted that this motto for a new “metanoia” would go a long way in reducing the causes of many forms of schizophrenia which, in McGilchrist’s research is associated with the hyperactivity of the left-hemisphere of the brain and its alienation and estrangement from the right-hemisphere.

Respondeo etsi mutabor also as a “way into the future” has some relevance for the history of science proper. As Thomas Kuhn once noted in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, scientific revolutions were never “thought” into existence, but came about because someone paid attention to the emergence of the anomalous, the unexpected, the unpredicted and decided it was worth responding too and investigating rather than being rationalised or explained away. Coincidentally, this was also don Juan’s advice to Castaneda — to remain vigilant for the manifestations of the anomalous also as the emergence of one’s “cubic centimetre of chance” or “the knock of the spirit”, as he called it.

The peculiarity of much that is “spiritual practice” or procedure, (as was once ironically pointed out by a Buddhist master), is that none of those who have achieved what we call “enlightenment”, and who subsequently developed and articulated a “procedure” for attaining enlightenment, actually arrived at enlightenment by following that procedure themselves. It came upon them “spontaneously” and in the manner that Christians call “the gift of grace”. Jill Bolte-Taylor says in her TED presentation that it’s just a simple matter of “stepping to the right” of the left-hemisphere of the brain, but that’s now how she arrived at her insight after all. It followed a devastating stroke that completely incapacitated her left-hemisphere’s normal functioning. We’re actually talking about a “mutation”, moreso than a “choice”, although cerebral neuroplasticity suggests both are involved. In other words, my choice here is to choose to respond or to not respond to the knock of the spirit. But I cannot will this knock of the spirit.

The “Great Work” is the method of no-method. “Not-Doing” is the same as “letting go”. Letting go is the practice of releasing the awareness from the tyranny of the left-hemisphere of the brain, the “second attention” (or “the emissary”) and its usurpation of consciousness. This is that mode of perception also that Gebser calls the reified “perspectival” or “mental-rational”. This also appears in Jill Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk when she expressed her anguish at not being able to locate her body in space, or her confusion at the sudden inability to perspectivise/rationalise sound or light sensory inputs. And, indeed, that was the meaning of Castaneda’s “Not-Doing” as well. The practices were intended to deconstruct the perspectivising of the “tonal” or left-hemisphere’s mode of cognition.

In those terms, the “Great Work” as “way into the future” is less about figuring things out than it is about de-figuring things. As a Zen parable puts it: the cup must become empty before it can be filled, or as Jesus put it equivalently, do not pour new wine into old wine skins.

“Not-Doing” is the complete equivalent of what Rumi called the desirability of “emptiness”, which is silent mind

Essence is emptiness.
Everything else accidental.

Emptiness brings peace to your loving.
Everything else, disease.

In this world of trickery emptiness
is what your soul wants.

All this is now backed up by the evidence of neurodynamics. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? In some ways, this is also the paradox of nihilism and the post-modern “deconstruction”. And there in lies the strange “double-movement of our times” identified by Gebser and the meaning of Nietzsche’s “become what you are!”.



9 responses to “Thomas Berry: The Great Work”

  1. srosesmith says :

    Aldous Huxley referred to It as “getting out of one’s own way.” Anything we do that is not ego-centered is The Way (to Presence Here&Now).

      • Scott Preston says :

        I also think that Gebser is quite right to conclude that as this new “structure of consciousness” gains steam and becomes more articulate about itself as it were (not just in what it says, but also does), it’s going to knock the stuffing out of the old structure of consciousness which I think we all see is so depleted for originary inspirations that it only sustains itself now by “hype”. “Hype” (or “boosterism”) is what if not artificial inspiration? Hype has become pretty much the lingua franca of Late Modernity. The “Bullshit Factor” as some are referring to it.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    For the next little while, I’ll probably spend more time speaking to the meaning of Berry’s “Great Work” in its relation to Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, McGilchrist, Nietzsche, Seth, and so on. They are all connected, and what connects them is that there is, indeed, an emergent consciousness that is trying to become articulate about itself, and is not finding much in the way of an accommodating language in order to become articulate about itself. So, we are also seeing innovations in language: Berry’s “Ecozoic Era” meets Rosenstock-Huessy’s “ecodynamics of society” and these correspond to “integral consciousness” as an ecology of being also. All this also links back to William Blake also, who announced the onset of a “New Age” represented as his “Albion”. None of this is actually following some deliberate plan or logical model. It is a spontaneous, emergent “irruption”, just as Gebser described it.

    • Steve Lavendusky says :

      Non doing is acting without acting. Means not doing on the part of the peripheral Ego in order to free real action.

  3. Dwig says :

    How does this trying to find a proper, integrated relationship of left brain to right brain relate to Jung’s concept of individuation? Just saying right hemisphere = unconscious, left hemisphere = conscious doesn’t feel right to me.

    This reminds me of another question: in your communications with McGilchrist, did you get the sense that he’s planning to an analysis of fore-and-aft, which he mentions but doesn’t elaborate on in his book?

    (Of course, there’s still another dimension, which might be called inner and outer, or older and newer.)

    • Scott Preston says :

      I just noticed that McGilchrist has a new ebook (which I downloaded) which is a supplement to The Master and his Emissary. It’s called The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning. More of an essay, really. I’ll have a read and let you know what it’s about.

      • Scott Preston says :

        I downloaded this e-book essay from Cost me all of .99 cents. It’s a good investment for someone who hasn’t read the book The Master and his Emissary because the essay is essentially a precis of the book, and a pretty good one. It doesn’t really miss much in terms of the main themes of the book.

        Anyone who is reluctant to tackle the The Master and his Emissary, which is quite lengthy, will get almost as much from the essay The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning, especially if they also keep Jill Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk in mind as they read McGilchrist’s essay. If you read the essay and understand it, then you’ve pretty much got all the core ideas that are in the book too.

  4. Scott Preston says :

    Jung’s concept of “individuation” relies completely on what he calls “the collective unconscious”. Jung himself compared this to the sustaining soil matrix in which the flower (the individual) has its roots. So “individuation” doesn’t mean “separation” or “apartness”.

    As Bolte Taylor noted, “I am” is realisation of the left-hemisphere. But it relies for it’s identity on the sustaining energies and vitality of the right-hemisphere.This is completely in keeping also with McGilchrist’s assessement of the situation. The “emissary” is that individuated portion of the master’s awareness, so there is really no separation between the awareness and the consciousness.

    The “collective unconscious” is a complete misnomer, of course. The first attention is not “unconscious” at all. It’s the left-hemisphere that has inhibited the perceptions of the right-hemisphere and has usurped them for its own purposes.

    For Jung, individuation means the realisation of “the Self”. But this “Self” is clearly the integral functioning of both the right and left-hemisphere modes of attention. Here, again, individuation is not an “either/or” issue, but a coincidentia oppositorum.

    McGilchrist is writing another book, but I don’t have much in the way of any information on it — something about porcupines and monkeys.

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